It’s nothing personal, says Brendan Gleeson about the central force in his most recent film Calvary. Almost about everyone in a small Irish parish hates his character, Father Lavelle. In the anonymity of the confessional, a parishioner vows to murder Lavelle in one week’s time.
“It’s not a personal thing,” insists Gleeson in our recent interview in DC, “It’s kind of, ‘Don’t take this personally, you know the organization that you’re a part of is appalling therefore you’re appalling, but it’s nothing to do with your actual personality, it’s your decision to take the cassock. It’s not thing personal but I hate your guts, it’s really more about the organization.’
As Lavelle goes about his priestly duties, sinister events add to the tension.
“It’s a who’s gonna do it rather than who dun it” kind of mystery, says director John Michael McDonagh. In most murder mysteries, either the victim is so seemingly innocent, it’s hard to figure out who might want to kill him or so blackhearted all of his acquaintances are suspects.
Calvary is different. The twist is that Father Lavelle is a very good priest indeed. He is dedicated, fearlessly wading in beyond his earthly abilities as he visits the criminally demented or suddenly bereaved. He has no easy answers. His faith and compassionate presence are his only offering. He somehow balances a refusal to judge with a strict moral code.
Everyone agrees he is a good priest. So good, in fact, that he becomes intolerable.
The town adulteress (Orla O’Rourke) loves rubbing his nose in her mortal sin, teasing him in the confessional and in the bar. He does not take the bait. The local angry atheist (Aiden Gillen) attacks faith in long, black, nihilistic stories. Lavelle doesn’t engage in self-righteous debate. The local gay prostitute (Owen Sharpe) tries to shock him with stories of debauchery. He is not shocked. None of it is news to him. The consummate capitalist (Dylan Moran) first tries to impress, then belittle the priest. Lavelle will have none of his carryings-on.
He cuts through false motives, calls people on their baloney, talks to them straight, loves them despite themselves. Sort of like his Lord.
No wonder they want to kill him. He shines a mirror on the hollowness of their own souls. “He knows the complexity of the world and the challenge of it,” explains Gleeson, “And he’s still chosen to maintain faith. And people resent him for that because they’ve lost theirs. They really want him to break, they really try to break him, but they don’t want him to break, ultimately. They want him to bring them a reason to believe again.”
The townsfolk need their priest and they hate him for that.
McDonagh has written and Gleeson played a man of faith, and a supporting cast of characters, more complex than any character you’ll see this side of a Terrence Malick movie.
What’s more, unlike some attempts at faith-based film here in the US, this who’s-gonna-do-it mystery is fully entertaining with a gripping plot and approachable for believers and unbelievers alike. You’ll have a good time whether you attended church last week or last decade.
Even so, more than movies like God’s Not Dead that preach to the choir and yet have weak arguments, this film makes a very powerful case for faith in our modern era.
Gleeson has seen church engagement drop dramatically in Ireland in his lifetime, but he doesn’t see that as working out well. “What do you replace [faith] with? If there’s nothing replacing it, people are in trouble. Those guys are all suffering. All those people are suffering. From you know, chronic attack of pessimism, malaise, lack of optimism. You know that malaise is despair, and despair is so…it’s empty.”
“In Lavelle’s eyes, he’s battling for hope against the forces of despair. That’s very near and real for him.”
The result is a fantastic movie, one of the best of 2014 so far.
Calvary is rated R, mostly for language. There are numerous sexual references but no explicit sexual scenes. There is some drug use and alcohol use and brief violence. There is a lot of raw human nature. I would actually show it to teens myself as it is a good exploration of human nature and the places dark, hopeless behavior takes us.